“Long Away and Far Ago”
by Nikki Stern
Long away and far ago, in a time that land forgot, a princess picked a pea from her mattress. Rolling it idly between her finger and thumb, she sighed and said aloud, “I wish I weren’t so bored.”
To her great surprise, the pea spoke. “Ouch!” was the first thing it said. “Keep rolling me around, and I’ll make sure you never get a good night’s sleep.” Then in a more soothing tone, “Here now, I can grant you three wishes except, well, I’ve already granted one by making your night less boring.”
“True,” said the princess gaily, “but I can make the best of the rest of it.”
She rose from her lumpy bed, went to the window, and gazed out upon the second star from the right.
“I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.”
“Silly girl, now you’ve gone and used up another one,” grumbled the pea, whereupon the princess leaned over and kissed it, turning it instantly into a frog.
“There now, let me concentrate on my wish,” she chided gently.
“Ribbit,” responded the frog.
The princess began to imagine her fondest desire but was distracted by her image in the mirror next to the window. “Why, I really am the fairest in all the land,” she mused, admiring her reflection and fluffing her hair.
“Well, no, actually you aren’t,” replied a disembodied floating face in the mirror. “But one of these might help.”
The disembodied face, which was actually connected to a single arm in a loose-fitting gossamer sleeve, gestured behind it to a table on which appeared an apple, a lamp, and a spindle. “Take your pick,” the face offered with a sly smile.
“No!” cried the frog who had been a pea (and was doubtless something enchanted before that), but it came out “Ribbit!”
“Oh gifts, I love gifts!” cried the princess. “Let’s see, I don’t need a lamp and, even if it were enchanted, I’m not sure whether I’d get three entirely new wishes or whether the two wishes from the pea (which is now a frog) might count against my total. As for apples, I know they’re good for me, or at least that’s what my stepmother, the evil queen, keeps telling me. Honestly, though, I don’t really like them.”
“Would you make up your mind?” the disembodied face suggested, a tad querulously.
“I do love to spin,” the princess continued. “That’s a beautiful spindle, and it goes nicely with my hair.” She shook out her extra-long blond locks, pushed up a sleeve, and reached into the mirror.
“No!” cried the frog again (and again, it came out “Ribbit!”). This time, though, it leapt in front of the princess’s outstretched hand and was impaled upon the spindle.
The frog did not die, as the spindle passed through a superfluous membrane, causing nothing more than a flesh wound. It did, however, promptly fall into a deep sleep.
The princess lifted up the amphibian and gently placed it on her lumpy mattress as the disembodied face, muttering various indecipherable curses, disappeared in a puff of smoke. She picked up the spindle and was about to test it on her spinning wheel (she had been experimenting with turning hay into gold, to no avail) when she heard a cry from below.
Thinking it was the prince from next door, she began letting down her hair so he might climb up to the balcony. To her surprise, she saw a white rabbit gesturing at her to come down. In one furry arm, he held a basket, over the other was draped a hooded red cape.
“It’s your grandmother. She’s quite ill. You must go to see her. Hurry, there’s no time to waste. You’re already very, very late.”
The princess thought this quite odd, especially as her grandmother was asleep in the adjacent room. Then she recalled stories of a child being found in a pumpkin left on the steps of the castle at midnight sixteen years earlier. Was she that poor foundling after all?
Perhaps my grandmother really is ill, and I must go, she thought. She looked down into to courtyard and saw all manner of creatures crowded together besides the rabbit: knaves and ogres, a giant, a white unicorn, a black stallion, a werewolf, seven dwarves, three dragons, a dog, and two quite unattractive sisters.
Suddenly the castle walls shook, and white lightening tore through the night sky, obliterating the stars. A fierce wind blew out of the north, and an enormous funnel cloud appeared overhead. The crowd disappeared, leaving the princess alone on her balcony, save for the little black dog, who had leapt into her arms, barking furiously.
A voice boomed from within the cloud as a giant face appeared.
“I am the great and powerful . . .”
“Oh, stop it. Just stop!” The princess shouted over the screaming winds, cutting off the booming voice. “I’ve had quite enough of talking faces and deceitful rabbits and changeable skies and broken promises. I just wish I knew what was real.”
All at once, there was a clap of thunder—or perhaps it was a clapping of hands—and the princess was back in her room, which really wasn’t a long distance to go, sitting on her lumpy mattress.
“Was it all a dream then?” she wondered aloud.
“No, you stupid girl,” snapped the pea from within the folds of one of the blankets. “You used up your third wish. Now you are left with the reality of a lumpy mattress and a life of boredom.”
“But you are left without any life at all,” replied the princess, somewhat cruelly. Then she crushed the pea between her fingers, popped it in her mouth and exited her chambers in search of something to do.
A small frog jumped off the balcony, landed into the courtyard, and changed into an impossibly handsome prince. He cast a sad and longing gaze back up to the balcony, then jumped astride his white stallion and made his way home to the neighboring kingdom.
Seeing how despondent he was, his mother, the queen, asked gently, “Did you not find a suitable bride, my son?”
“I did find a princess, but as it turned out, she wasn’t sensitive to the pea, not in the least.”
His mother patted his arm. “Don’t fret, Charming. Somewhere there’s a girl for you, perhaps under the sea. Or she might be over the river or through the woods.”
“The woods!” cried the prince. “I must go to the woods in order to help the poor by robbing from the rich.”
“But darling,” exclaimed the queen. “We’re rich!”
“Don’t worry, Mother. I’ve arranged to have your assets distributed among several investment vehicles, which will maximize your profits, minimize your tax burden, and protect you from unwanted lawsuits. A designated amount, more than adequate to your current and future needs, will be deposited in a variable annuity, further shielding you from greedy sovereigns, unscrupulous sheriffs, and the predictable cycle of unpredictable market pricing. I’ve also got a little natural gas company I’d like to talk about with you.”
“Oh, son. With that kind of forward-thinking approach, you’ll find the woman of your dreams in no time.”
“Or man, Mother. I’m committed to keeping an open mind.”
The prince kissed his mother and galloped off to the forest where he won renown for his many brave and noble deeds. Eventually he did meet his life partner, for who wouldn’t be attracted to a man who is good to his mother, kind to those less fortunate, and looks fabulous astride a white horse?
Only a pea brain.